The Indians of Manhattan Island

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When the Dutch came to this country they found that Manhattan island was inhabited by Indians whom they called "Manhattos" or "Manhattans". These Indians were part of the great tribe of Delawares, which included the Hackensack and Tappan tribes on the west side of the Hudson.

There were also other neighboring tribes and there is evidenced that all these peoples communicated with one another, and that there were trade relationships among them. Frequently, too, there was war.

Ownership of Land

Originally land was not owned as we own it. To the Indians ownership of land meant the right to inhabit it, to cultivate the soil, to hunt and fish. Should a pestilence fall upon the tribe or food become scarce the community would move to another location. It was doubtless this idea of the use of land without individual ownership that later made trouble with the white settlers. It is easy to imagine that, in the negotiations for Manhattan and other places, Indians thought they were selling only the right to occupy land.

Manners and Customs

It was not so much the white man's superior knowledge as his tools that attracted the Indians. Metal knives were a great advance from the sharpened shells and flint stones they were accustomed to use, and bolts of cloth must have greatly appealed to the squaws. Was it any wonder that the natives were willing to make any possible bargain to gain these wonderful things!

Beaver skins were common currency. Beads were cut out from shells and were often used as money. Sometimes these were woven into strips of three or four inches in width and about four or five feet long. These "belts" of wampum were often used to seal a contract, each party giving to the other a belt of wampum to show good faith in the carrying out of the bargain and to make it binding.

Customs and practices, rather than law regulated their conduct. For instance, murder was avenged by the nearest kin provided he met the murderer within twenty-four hours. If he did not, the crime would be atoned for by the payment of wampum. Each tribe had its sachem or chief who decided affairs of the tribe.

When an Indian died he was buried in a sitting posture. It was a strange custom that his name also died with him. As their names were often common words like "Rattle-snake", or "Turtle", this word had to be changed to something else. All of this change made great confusion in their language.

The Indians were by custom hospitable and welcome was extended by the spreading of the palms of the hand on the chest of the visitor with the greeting, "Strength be with you". In fact the Manhattan Indians were kindly disposed to the white man until the relationship was abused.

The Indian houses were bark-covered huts made by binding the tops of saplings together and covering the frame with strips of bark. The fire was usually in the center and a hole was left in the middle of the roof to allow smoke to escape. Often the furniture would consist of no more than a cooking vessel and a circular bench around the inside of the wall for the inhabitants to sit or sleep upon. Some of their houses accommodated more than one family. These were called "Long houses". In shape they were long and rounded on the top. Sometimes they lived in caves in the rocks.

For food they ate corn, roots, nuts and berries, the flesh of animals and fish. From the heaps of shells found in and around Manhattan, it is evident that oysters were a favorite food. Their boats were dugouts made by hollowing out logs. Because of the lack of tools they would burn out the center of the log and scrape out the charred wood.

The Indians of Manhattan were not as advanced as those of some other localities. Their weapons were bows and arrows with points of stone or bone, stone spears and flint knives. They would use a mortar or vessel made from a log and in this they would grind their maize or beans with a stone or wooden pestle. The women not only did all the house work but attended to the growing of vegetables.

The Indians of Manhattan were distinguished by their headdress. They did not wear feathers on their caps as did some of the other tribes but shaved their heads leaving a ridge of hair standing upright like a cock's comb from the forehead to the nape of the neck. This they often made longer by the addition of deer's hair dyed red. Their clothing consisted of pieces of animal skin around their bodies. In winter they wrapped about them blankets of fur. Often they painted their bodies.

There were two trading stations on lower Manhattan, one on the shore of Collect Pond and the other, to the northwest on the Hudson River. The latter was called "Sappohanican" and was on the site of the present Gansevoort Market. The village of Shorakapkok was located at the north end of Manhattan at what is now Inwood Hill Park. Huge shell heaps were found here, also pottery and other objects left by the early inhabitants. Here rock shelters may be seen which afforded refuge in the cold winter.

Indians in New York as well as in other parts of the country now live generally in reservations that have been set aside for their use. There are ten such reservations in New York State in which more than five thousand Indians live. Many have attained a high state of civilization and are excellent and intelligent citizens.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Indians of Manhattan Island
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Historical Handbook of the City of New York; Compiled by Mary F. Smart; Published by the City History Club of New York (1934)
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